This Is Only The Beginning…Sort Of

The phrase “This is only the beginning” can be read in a few different ways. And I’m going to share with you how I mean it. It may not be what you think.

The year of 2016 changed me. If we’d had a conversation on this day in January of 2016, it likely would have been a vastly different conversation than if we’d had it today. Several occurrences factored into this, some personal, some professional. But then, as I was thinking this through, I realized that my conclusion wasn’t entirely honest.

Here’s a more honest way of putting it: throughout the year, I became more of who I am.

I don’t like thinking that an outside experience “makes me different,” mostly because I don’t want to give my power away to anything outside of me. I’m in charge of my thoughts, my feelings, my reactions, my actions. I’m in charge of my words, my expressions, my hopes, my dreams. I’m in charge of my own damn imagination and no one can take that away from me.

I will admit that the 2016 election challenged me – to stay positive, to stay focused, to stay centered in truth, and open to evolving that truth.

And in (mostly-ish) meeting that challenge, I began to become more of myself. (I also began cussing a lot more, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Over this weekend, seeing people all across the world come out to support the basic notion that Equal Rights are Human Rights, moved me. Knowing I’m not alone moved me.

A lot of what I have to say, a lot of who I am, comes through in my books, in my written words, however subtly. In social media, on this blog, I have steered away from expressing blatantly polarizing ideas because my intent in life is not to polarize. Quite the opposite. Compassion and empowerment are biggies for me. Understanding is a biggie for me. But there is no middle ground between compassion and hatred. Being compassionate about discrimination is not a step toward acceptance.

There are times when I have sent pieces of my work to people who are nothing like me (different race/gender/sexual orientation/religion/etc.) and I ask them to tell me if there’s something I’m not understanding, if there’s something I don’t know that I should know. I ask people not just like me to help me to understand more than what I know. I ask them to, out of love, call bullshit on me.

And I’m so grateful when I understand some new human facet, new human truth, in a new light. That is a step toward acceptance.

Over the weekend, watching women and men and children all around this world of ours come out in support of equal rights, I understood something else in a new light.

Me.

Now, stick with me, because I don’t mean this in a selfish way. I mean this in a human empowerment way. I understood that there are others who feel as I do, and who feel completely different than I do. Others who have had experiences like I have had, and who have had completely different experiences from what I have had. There are others who have powered on through chaos like I have, and in ways I’m not even aware of. Others who have made sacrifices for something they know is the right thing to do, however unpopular it may make them, and others who quietly do what they do and stay under the radar to stay alive. I understood there are others who live the daily paradox of what it means to be a strong woman in our world.

Over this weekend, solidarity has rooted me in ways I have never felt before. I feel connected to others in ways I have never felt before. I feel purposeful in ways I have known, but hadn’t fully realized until now. I feel empowered as one of many human beings alive today, and I’m ready to continue understanding more of what life is like for others, in an effort that we come together, be generous listeners, to seek to know what we don’t yet know, to understand what we don’t yet understand, and to empower one another to ensure that “equal rights” isn’t just a philosophy, it’s an evolving way of being as well as A HUMAN RIGHT that we, together from our many perspectives, will fight for.

I know I’m not alone in that feeling. And I LOVE that.

Also over the course of the year, given the chaos in our country, in our brief time in history, I looked more directly at what it is that I’m here to contribute. What comes next as we march forward. What torch do I carry alongside others? And in finding my way to this, I honed in on a few facets of humanity I care passionately about:

Compassion, equality (including but not limited to feminism), empowerment, and emotional honesty.

Because all of this begins inside of me (I cannot, for example, write with any kind of emotional honesty if I’m not being honest with myself), I will be fair and say that, a year ago, I probably wouldn’t have said something that I knew could potentially bring bullies and trolls my way. And now, in the aftermath of 2016, I’ve concluded that that’s okay. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. And I will not be indifferent in the name of keeping peace.

I will keep my compass dialed into what is important to me. I will use my voice on this journey. As Margaret Atwood said, “A word after a word after a word is power.” I will carry a pen for power and a sword for protection.

I will not be indifferent.

I will stay rooted and connected, seeking to root deeper and connect further into places I have only, until now, dreamed of.

I will not be indifferent.

I will celebrate others on their journey who are doing the work to carry the light, likely in the face of trolls or bullies or worse. Much worse. I will not be afraid of misunderstanding so that I may move toward understanding. I will share my spirit and recognize when others are doing the same. I will be a generous listener when there is a new perspective to be learned. I will speak with intent when there is something to be said. I will do my best. And I will be patient with others doing the same. We are not alone. We are stronger together.

We will not be indifferent.

As Gloria Steinem said on Saturday, “This is a day that will change us forever because we are together.”

I wholeheartedly agree. And I’m so grateful to be alive right now. With you.

And this is only the beginning…of a renewed charge toward equality. Here we go (again, still). Together.

Xo Isla Dean

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(Photo source unknown)
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Weekend Update: Leaves & Loves

Last week, I was invited by a great publication to do an interview on what it means to be a romance writer who also supports equal rights for women (commonly labeled as a feminist). Sure! Love to! I’m honored!

On Saturday I started in on my responses and found myself fired up. As an autumn storm brought heaving gusts of wind that spun the gold, green, and brown leaves through the sky, I dove in and didn’t come up for air for hours.

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Finally I surfaced, took stock of the fallen limbs, the smattering of raindrops on the deck, and was struck with a a bone-deep love for the fact that I’m a woman, a romance writer, and a woman who celebrates other women. What a time to be a woman. Truly.

Important issues in our culture that have been hiding in the shadows for decades–centuries!–are coming to light. Women are coming together, holding hands, and championing one another through difficult discussions (like sexual assault). Now, for clarity, I’m not talking about political affiliations; what it means to be a woman in our culture in this day and age, goes beyond the presidential election. I’m speaking simply about my own gratitude to be a woman surrounded by really awesome women doing really awesome things with their lives. (I love men too, but that’s another topic.) 🙂

On Sunday, the leaves continued to drift and spin and scatter, tree limbs kept falling on the deck, making me think a bird was trying to fly through the french doors, and the rain drizzled enough to coat everything–including my favorite heart-shaped grape leaves–with a nice dampness, but not enough to make true, foot-stomping puddles. I read over my interview responses, tweaked and refined a bit, then got to work on my current book, listening to the occasional gong from the wind-chimes.

 

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The final moments of the weekend were rewarded with a glass of red wine and some homemade “kitchen sink” ramen–so satisfying on a cold evening. (Okay, maybe a cool evening. Yes, this is California in October, not New York in March.)

I hope everyone has a marvelous week!

xo Isla

PS- I’ll post a link to the article once it’s published!

 

 

 

Cheers To You, Autumn

Autumn equinox brings the balance of day and night, light and dark. And here in the mountains of California, the first crisp day of Autumn brought a cool morning that required a thick, fully zipped sweatshirt in order to sit out on the terrace and sip coffee; the morning routine. (I wore pants too, but that may or may not have gone without saying.) It was as if Mother Nature decided to give us a proper sampling of the weather that was to come. And we are so grateful for the break in the heat–even though I do cherish warmth.

Saturday was a work day for me as last week we had a fun family visitor in town (Auntie Connie!) and I lost a couple days. I’m nearing the finish line of a second draft for a new book and am enjoying dipping into the story as the season changes around me, readying for those shorter days and longer nights.

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Wine + California Sunset 

Saturday evening I celebrated the productive day with a glass of wine out on the terrace to enjoy the sunset, followed by a big bowl of popcorn (with the usual parmesan cheese and cayenne pepper) and a “brief” binge viewing (3 episodes) of Longmire on Netflix. I’m almost through the season and ready for the new episodes–a terrific show. I enjoy the pacing, the characters, the turbulent emotions just under the stoic surface with a strong spine of care and duty in the core.

Sunday saw another burst of warmth which took me by surprise. I was so ready for sweater season! It was a long, hot, fiery summer, and autumn is a very welcome change around here. Still I hunkered down, read a little, wrote a little, enjoyed homemade pizza made by my fabulous mother, and tried to nap given that I feel a cold trying to come my way, but I was too busy adoring my snuggling puppy to get any real sleep. 🙂

I’m ready for this week, ready for the harvest of that which has been planted in prior seasons, and ready to hunker down and see these characters that are in my heart through to the finish of their story.

Much love to all,

Isla

 

Hot and Smokey Summer

Some months stand out in our lives, and for me, this will be one of those months. As July comes to a close (phew!), I will say that I’m quite happy for the fresh start of August. I love warmth–hate to feel that to-the-bone chill–and usually adore the hot summer months. But the extreme drought in California has tipped that perspective in a different direction.

We have evacuated from our home twice this month due to nearby fires. After last summer, we know the adrenaline-pumping drill and had time (well, 30 minutes in one instance) to put our pets in their travel crates (first step ALWAYS), race around the house and gather up goods like computers, clothes, and toiletries while listening to the scanner for updates. For anyone who has ever been through a home evacuation due to a fire–my heart is with you. For us, it’s a mix of terror and total gratitude that we even have the time to evacuate in the first place, and a whole lot of praying to the Gods to protect our home, our neighborhood, our wild animals that surround us in the woods.

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After evacuating, we spent many long hours waiting. Gigi felt the worry.

My heart breaks into a million tiny shards when a family of deer watch me load my car in preparation to leave. I want everyone to climb in the car with us–the deer, the squirrels, the turkeys, the birds. Everyone is confused by the panicked rush, the planes sweeping and diving overhead and dropping retardant, the call of sirens. As we leave, we see neighbors packing their cars, watering their yards to help guard, and under the red glow that hovers, it makes for an eerie departure.

Thanks to the amazing work of superheroes (firefighters), we were able to return to our home both times. HOME!! When I say I want to wrap my arms around my home and hug it, I mean it in the most desperate of ways. The next morning, while filled with gratitude and exhaustion, we sat outside on the terrace as is our routine, and smiled generously as the turkeys and deer tramped by, the birds called from the trees. Everyone was HOME.

Also this month, my step grandfather–the gritty and spirited motorcycle racing legend, Doug Wilson–passed away. Well over 200 people attended his memorial–and even the local auto parts stores closed in order for the employees to attend. Amazing. I didn’t last as long as I would’ve liked–I’m a massively weepy weenie when it comes to public shows of immense pride, honor, respect, and kindness. (I don’t even need to know the person to become a puddle.)

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The Doug Wilson T-Shirt

To add some fun and delight to the mix of the month, one of my best buds Dara came for her annual visit. We trekked to the lake for lunch a couple of times, watched little baby ducks swim with their mother, and lounged, chatted, ate delicious food, and drank delicious adult beverages in the evening on the terrace. A marvelous week all around–and so good to have a best girl-pal to laugh and lounge with.

Every day this month–even when emotionally exhausted or while Dara was visiting–I spent at least a handful of hours working on the current book. I’m nearing done with it–and I have to say that it’s been such an emotionally charged month for me (I won’t even mention politics–wait I just did–but it certainly factors in), that I imagine some of that emotion seeped into the manuscript. Because my job requires me to express emotional honesty, this month has given me new boosts of soul-deep gratitude for my family, for my home, my friends, and for the incredible work of brave men and women who fight fires and keep us safe.

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Happy smiles and smokey skies
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We love our terrace–complete with puppy pool to keep us cool.

Happy (almost) August, everyone.

xo Isla

Feet & Vagina: An Essay On Writing Honestly

I was born into a kind, caring family, raised in a small town where you couldn’t go to the grocery store without knowing at least five people. (Suzy! Jimmy! Tommy! Mary! Mr. Musacchio!) Kind social pleasantries were a way of life. And while that is all well and good (and a hell of a lot better than some of the intense awfulness that children can experience in this world), I had a drive toward emotional truth that prevented me from fully appreciating my participation in those pleasantries. I was less interested in what was being said, and more interested in what wasn’t being said.

Long before I was able to identify that drive for truth, I spent a lot of time in my imagination. And in my imagination, there was always a beat of truth in the heart of the play. My Christmas list every year read, “Dear Santa, I would like my driver’s license, please.” (Always polite.) And I was genuinely convinced that in some way, for some reason (cue imagination), I was going to be granted my driver’s license before the requisite age of 16. I never dreamed of anything that wasn’t at least slightly possible. I didn’t imagine becoming a fairy princess in a far off land with a dragon as my protector. I dreamed, instead, of rescuing a close family member of the President of the United States and being awarded with my driver’s license at the totally astute age of seven. In reality, it’s completely unlikely this would happen (and to be honest, I have a heard time even saying that), but it could happen. Sadly it did not, but this was my early training in believing wholeheartedly in my imagination. In a lot of ways, these playful scenarios were more real than the pleasant grocery store greetings.

After college, I moved to Los Angeles and began attending the (prestigious, thank you very much) acting school, Playhouse West. This was where I got my first taste of exchanging emotional truth with peers in real life—not just in my imagination. The experience was intense. Soul-squeezing, gut-wrenching intense. It required listening for whispered expressions of human truth, breathing in those whispers, then breathing back out my own honest reaction, no matter how subtle or bold. If we expressed anything less than honesty, if we slipped into “acting” or “thinking” rather than “being” and “expressing,” we were stopped in our tracks, called on the fake or contrived expression, and told to get off the stage and sit down. That training demanded such emotional truth from me that I left sobbing from my deepest, darkest places on several occasions because I was so emotionally open. And I loved it.

Later when I moved to New York, I felt a deep sense of connection to the city. Which was a bit odd to the outside viewer, I imagine, given that I grew up in such a small town, but to me, something strummed inside of me and I felt at home. I began my job at CNN and within hours of my arrival, I dove headfirst into that corporate routine of pleasant coffee room conversation: “Hi, how are you?” “Good, thanks, how are you?” “Good. Okay, see ya.” “Take care.” But there was one girl in the mix who didn’t exchange smiles in the hallway, didn’t make coffee room small talk, didn’t emote anything she didn’t intend to emote. I thought, God, this girl is kind of awful. In my head, I dubbed her Mean Girl. Then early one morning, I stepped into the elevator and there she was. The two of us rode up twenty-something floors together in silence then finally I said to her, “I like your tights,” (they featured some fun geometric pattern) and she replied with her tone as indifferent as the look on her face, “Thanks. They smell like feet and vagina.”

In that instant, I adored her. The truthful words were like candy for my spirit and we became friends. She was brave in her expression (likely without knowing it), candid, and blunt without being mean (contrary to my initial perception), or further, without caring if she was perceived as mean. There was a freedom and inherent hilarity in her expression, which I knew to be that thing I adore: emotional honesty. And, like New York itself, something resonated with me on that day, something that strummed a sense of home within me.

Stephen King said, “As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty.” How do you do this? Well, I can’t—with any confident honesty—tell you how to do this, but I can tell you how I strive for honesty in my writing. I listen. It’s something I know I’m good at. I listen, I feel, I pay attention, and then I communicate (write) what I experience. But before I’m able to do all of that, I first—and this is crucial—have to be open to that level of honesty inside of myself before I can play in the sandbox with anyone else—real or fictional. I must practice the same intense level of honesty within myself, well before I can expect to be in tune with the honesty of my work. Basically, I have to be able to call bullshit on myself before I can call bullshit on anything I create.

When I recognize those moments of honesty in my writing, I relish that they required little to no effort from the thinking mind or any sort of plotted, pre-determined reaction (which can be spotted by even a slightly discerning reader), and rather that they required me to inhale with all of my senses, then exhale my honest interpretation of the situation, the scene, the story. That is my job, and I must be able to call bullshit when necessary. (Trust me, it’s necessary.) On the flip side, I also must be able to spot truth when I see it.

Each afternoon, after wrapping up my writing for the day, I head out into nature with my puppy. As we walk—avoiding as many bugs, bears, and reptiles as possible—I spend time letting my mind catch up with whatever I’ve created that day. What interests me is not, is this new situation carrying the plot forward? Did those scenes make sense as part of the whole? That will all be answered after I finish the first draft and begin working through the second. What matters most to me is, did I pay attention to the truth? And did I express that truth? If not, it’s okay. I’ll keep going, keep writing the next day, and will go back and work with whatever strand of truth I can unravel during that second draft.

Like anything else, expressing honestly is a process, a muscle that must be recognized and exercised. It’s also my job. In order to do my job, I must make sure to remember at least this one thing: always pay attention to my character’s (and my own) feet and vagina.

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Mean (Awesome, Brave, Hilarious) Girl & Me

One Summer Night ~ On Sale Now!

The 4th (and final!) book in the One Night Collection – ONE SUMMER NIGHT – is on sale now!

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I started off writing this series as a challenge to myself: could I write a short story that was a concentrated look into one night in two people’s lives, one night that would change the course of their lives forever, and have it be believable, with living, breathing, interesting characters?

The plan was for one novella, not four. But it happened as it does… I fell in love with the characters and had to tell everyone’s story to complete the series. 🙂

Here is the best order to read them in, however, you can skip around and all will still be right in the world. Whichever book calls to you, read that one first. (Sort of like, in our household, it is always an option to eat dessert first.)

One Night Collection:

One Autumn Night

One Winter Night

One Spring Night

One Summer Night

I hope everyone enjoys the collection of short stories as much as I enjoyed writing them!

xo Isla

The Beginning…

I am often asked how/when/why I began writing. So here’s a short bit about how/when/why it came about:

I’ve always had a vibrantly active imagination. Always, always. But as a kid, perhaps because I’m an only child, I didn’t realize that this was anything out of the ordinary. I thought everyone experienced stories bursting to life in their head like I did (and do), and I thought everyone had an intense drive to write them or act them out. And that’s exactly what I did throughout my childhood–either acting out stories with my best bud, or taking my grandmother’s typewriter, lugging it out to the old woodshed (no idea why the woodshed, guess it felt like a cozy writing nook) and writing stories.

Also as a child, I loved to read. Scholastic book orders were among my favorite events. But I wasn’t a sedentary kid either. I was always zooming around my super small community on my motorcycle (pretending it was a car, acting out stories, of course) and I was in many (many many!) theatrical and dance performances at the local theatre–always expressing feeling and imagination in a disciplined way (not much has changed there). Also, my father was a race car driver so on long trips to wherever his races were, I’d gobble up books, asking to stop in every city along the way for new, fresh reads.

As an adult, one summer I ventured to a fishing village in Florida to visit some family friends and I was desperate for some entertainment while sitting outside in the swampy heat (others were smoking inside), so I headed to the nearest Wal-Mart (the only place in that town to buy a book), and purchased three books by Nora Roberts. And I was hooked. I was home. Having never read romance novels before then, the whole experience resonated deeply within me.

Soon after, I moved to New York after being offered a position at CNN. Across the country from my friends and family, and knowing only one person when I arrived there, I spent a lot of time in my imagination as I wandered up and down the streets, through Central Park, along the Hudson River, investigating the feel and flavors of my new city.

Because I was largely alone–in a densely populated city–that time I spent in my imagination was important for me. It gave me company, it entertained me, and helped me feel connected as I learned the ways of this new life adventure I was on.

I remember one day having this very strong, very distinct feeling under the surface that I wanted to connect with. It wasn’t a neighborhood I wanted to go to, it wasn’t a store, it wasn’t a restaurant, or place. I trekked to the nearest Barnes & Noble, then the Borders bookstore, scanning the shelves, searching for the book that contained the feeling of the world my imagination craved to dive into. It was such a specific feeling that I was seeking, I roamed every aisle, every genre, and couldn’t find it on any page in any book on any shelf.

And I remember it dawning on me like a flash of light bursting in my heart: the story was within me. It was my story to write. So I went home, back to my itty bitty studio apartment on the Upper West Side, and I wrote that story.

Isla while living in NYC
Isla while living in NYC

That first novel, I’m happy to say, will remain locked away forever. It was me working through those initial  kinks as a creator, I suppose. But then I sat down and wrote Hidden Harbor and haven’t looked back.

I am so incredibly grateful for this career. I love the whole process (even on days where a lot of wrestling is involved), including the imaginative elements (the research, the what next-ing, uncovering the motivation), the discipline of writing seven days a week, the re-writing, the polishing. I love falling in love with the characters through their story. I love getting to know my characters each and every time and my favorite book is always the one I’ve just finished because their story is still within me, lingering.

And then I immediately move on to the next book. The story I’ve just finished is no longer mine. It’s for the readers. And my job is to let those characters be adored–hopefully–and to focus on the new story in front of me. A new story to feel my way through, new characters to fall in love with.

I love my job, and I’m so grateful to be doing a job that I love with my whole heart. I love the opportunity to live my dreams just as I love watching my characters strive for their dreams.

Dream big.
xo Isla